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UC alum awarded posthumous graduate degree in speech-language pathology

Family presented with a hood and diploma for Bill Waldeck, ’14, who died from glioblastoma in 2018

The University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Allied Health Sciences (CAHS) posthumously presented a master’s degree to the family of Bill Waldeck, a 2014 Bachelor of Science graduate. The diploma and a hood were presented to his parents and brother at an event held at French East on Dec. 5, 2018.

During his senior year as an undergrad in the Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) program at CAHS, Waldeck was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 21. The diagnosis forced him to take a year off to be treated with surgery and radiation, after which doctors cleared him to return to his studies. Waldeck began the Master of Arts in Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) in fall 2015.

“After taking a year off and coming back and feeling better about his prognosis, I think he had a new feeling about life,” says Carney Sotto, PhD, professor in CSD at CAHS, who first taught Waldeck when he was a sophomore undergraduate after transitioning from UC Blue Ash. “He wanted to get everything out of graduate school in order to be a speech pathologist, and he became such a shining star in the MA program.”

Bill Waldeck in his cap and gown from his 2014 graduation

Bill Waldeck in his cap and gown from his 2014 UC graduation

At the start of his second year of graduate studies, the tumor returned and spread toward his brain stem, impacting his vision, balance, hearing and coordination. Despite chemotherapy, Waldeck’s condition worsened with a biopsy revealing the tumor had transitioned into a stage-4 glioblastoma. His doctor suggested that he withdraw from all of his courses in the middle of the semester in the fall of 2016 and discontinue his clinical practicum.

The following year brought more treatments for Waldeck but ultimately, more tumor growth as well. Waldeck passed away on May 31, 2018 at the age of 25.  

Sotto says in the summer of 2018, she talked to Tina Whalen, EdD, dean of the college, about a posthumous degree for Waldeck. Whalen encouraged Sotto to contact the UC Office of the Provost, which she did, providing information about Waldeck’s background and the timeline of his illness. Eventually, the first posthumous degree in the history of the college was approved, and Dec. 5 was chosen as the date to present the degree to his family.

The event became a celebration of Waldeck’s life and accomplishments, with relatives, friends and faculty sharing memories of him. Those in attendance included Karla Washington, PhD, associate professor in CSD. Sotto says Washington’s appearance was a surprise since she was on sabbatical in Canada at the time, but speaks to the impact that Waldeck had on CAHS, where, as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, so many people got to know him.

“The mood was very good, people were telling stories and there was also a lot of laughter because so many were sharing stories about Bill,” says Sotto. “Turns out he was a German dancer, and there were a lot of other things he did that no one really knew about.”

Aimee Dietz, PhD, associate professor and director of the SLP graduate program says it took a while for her to learn that one thing Waldeck did was sit in lawn chairs with two other male students in the back of a class she taught.

“The graduate aphasia class was held in Room 235 at French East, and there were around 40 women and only three guys, and they are in that room from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” says Dietz. “The guys apparently didn’t think the classroom chairs were very comfortable and so they sat in lawn chairs. I don’t know how they ever got through the class without me knowing the chairs were back there.”

Dean Tina Whalen with the family of Bill Waldeck

College of Allied Health Sciences Dean Tina Whalen with the family of Bill Waldeck

Waldeck’s mom, Eileen, was hooded during the event and Sotto says she wore the hood for the rest of the evening and posted later on social media about wearing it all night in honor of her son Bill. The hooding was part of an effort to replicate as much as possible of what it feels like to be at a graduation ceremony for the parents.

“Dean Whalen called the president’s office to get the exact wording that the president or the dean would announce at graduation,” says Sotto. “That was really important to all of us, to have the exact wording.”

That attention to detail made for a very special evening for the Waldeck family.

“I was crying most of the night because when they hooded me, I was so proud and I kept thinking over and over that Bill's dream came true,” she says. “It was so great to see all the professors attend the ceremony, see the pictures of him at workshops and to hear all the great stories of Bill. It was great to see how much he impacted their lives and it was awesome to see a side of him that we never got a chance to see.”

She also said it meant a lot to her and her family to have several of her son’s professors come to her house shortly before he passed away.

“It truly shows how much those professors think about the students as humans and not just a name or a number,” she says.  

Whalen says while she played a role in getting the posthumous degree conferred to Waldeck’s family, it was the CSD faculty who made it happen.

“It was a labor of love, it took a village,” says Whalen. “Everybody in the department supported it, it was a group effort by a lot of dedicated people. The CSD faculty were at the degree presentation en masse, and it was a wonderful way to honor Bill’s memory. He was quite a Bearcat, very loyal to the university and proud of what he accomplished at UC.”

Featured image at top: Faculty from the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Allied Health Sciences with the family of Bill Waldeck. Photo/Colleen Kelley/UC Creative Services.